When a school campus receives a failing grade for two consecutive years, the Texas Education Agency mandates an improvement plan. These “turnaround plans” are required by state law to get campuses back on track to a passing grade within a two-year time frame.

The TEA can close a chronically failing campus or place a board of managers over the school district if campuses fail to reverse their accountability ratings during this period.

State law requires these plans be approved by a district’s board of trustees in January. In the Harlandale and East Central independent school districts, boards voted Thursday night on turnaround plans for two elementary schools.

The TEA’s accountability system marks campuses and districts as either “met standard” (MS) or “improvement required” (IR). To achieve the “met standard” designation, schools must hit target scores in three of four categories assigned by the TEA: student achievement, student progress, closing performance gaps, and postsecondary readiness.

If a campus misses the target score in student achievement but still checks off student progress, or vice versa, it can still rank as having “met standard.” This provision allows campuses that either have very much or very little to improve in terms of student achievement to still make the grade.

Schools labelled “improvement required” means the campus’ performance is “unacceptable.”

Pecan Valley Elementary School in East Central ISD serves students in Pre-kindergarten through third grade. The TEA first rated it “improvement required” in 2016 for failing to achieve its goal in the student achievement category. In 2017, the campus again received an IR rating for a failure in the same category, although the campus came closer to achieving its target score.

Pecan Valley’s turnaround plan cites a lack of quality instructional practices on campus as the reason for the school’s failing rating. The plan also says most teachers instructed at a one or two grade levels below the state standards for a particular grade.

To correct these issues, Pecan Valley plans to implement professional development for teachers focused on improving literacy. The campus also will host academic nights to increase family engagement in student learning.

Harlandale ISD’s Stonewall Flanders Elementary School first received an IR rating in 2016 for failing to meet the standard in student achievement and in closing performance gaps. The campus received the same grade in 2017, with some improvement in the student achievement area.

Stonewall Flanders’ improvement plan says its teachers do not consistently plan and deliver lessons aligned with Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), the state standard for what students should be able to know and do, thereby affecting student performance.

The improvement plan is directed toward improving STAAR results on math, reading, and writing exams. Goals focus on boosting scores to 65 percent proficiency on the exams.

Harlandale ISD proposes that teachers form groups for ongoing math training and lesson planning to better implement elements of math TEKS in daily lessons, participate in groups designed to develop better reading lessons, and create a plan for writing education that spans kindergarten through fifth grade and all content areas.

The campus plans to add two full-time instructional coaches to help teachers develop lesson plans and to implement a “flex reading program” that would group students by reading ability.

Principal Traci Smith, who previously served as principal at SAISD’s Stewart Elementary School, is leading the turnaround effort at Stonewall Flanders. She spoke at Thursday night’s board meeting, outlining the finer points of the campus’ plan and emphasizing the role of data in understanding how to support students.

“We would look to try to enhance our abilities to study the data even more to be able to know how to better meet the needs of our students,” Smith said. “Those are the big points that will carry the school even further forward.”

The board voted unanimously to approve the plan.

“I know you have a hard job, and we know you can do it,” Board President Carlos Quezada told Smith before the vote.

Principal Traci Smith works with teacher Brianna Villasenor on data sets on individual student performance.
Principal Traci Smith works with teacher Brianna Villasenor on data sets of individual student performance. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Harlandale’s Adams Elementary School also received an IR rating in 2017. Should it again receive a failing grade in 2018, it, too, will need to implement a turnaround plan. The same is true for East Central ISD’s Salado Intermediate School, Legacy Middle School, and Harmony Elementary School.

After a district submits turnaround plans, the TEA continues to check in on individual campus progress throughout the rest of the year based on the plans, with checkpoints built in during March and June.

Should a campus receive a “met standard” score in 2018, it has the option to implement the plan as written, modify it, or withdraw it entirely. The decision is left to the board of trustees.

If a campus receives another IR rating in 2018, but then is scored as “met standard” in 2019, it must continue implementing the turnaround plan as submitted.

Harlandale and East Central ISDs are not alone in needing turnaround plans. San Antonio ISD currently has five campuses in need of turnaround plans for the next school year, two others in the first year of their respective turnaround plans, and six that are in their second year.

The SAISD board is scheduled to vote Monday, Jan. 22 to approve turnaround plans for the five campuses with two consecutive IR rankings: Highlands High School, Page Middle School, Poe Middle School, Rogers Middle School, and Foster Elementary School.

Six other campuses have received at least four consecutive IR ratings: Irving Middle School, Stewart Elementary School, Miller Elementary School, Ogden Elementary School, Rodriguez Elementary School, and Tafolla Middle School.

Irving is in the process of being “phased out,” SAISD spokeswoman Leslie Price said. In 2017-18, Irving MS instructs only seventh and eighth graders. Next year, the last class will graduate from Irving.

When state accountability ratings come out in August, if any of the remaining campuses with four or more consecutive IR ratings receive another, the TEA has some options for further action: The state education agency has the authority to close a campus or place a board of managers over a district. A board of managers would replace any elected board and would govern all aspects of the district. The commissioner of education is responsible for selecting and appointing members of the board of managers and determining the length of its service. A new superintendent can also be selected and appointed.

TEA officials said Commissioner of Education Mike Morath doesn’t have to strictly commit to either of those pathways and, if necessary, will make decisions based on whatever is best for the students.

Struggling districts have an additional option. A district can turn over control of a campus to a charter school or other commissioner-approved entity. Doing so pauses IR intervention for two years.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.